On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (Annotated Edition)

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On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (annotated) by Henry David Thoreau · formaputipa.tk

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Remove From Wishlist Cancel. Law itself, he says, can make decent men do unjust things. Soldiers he sees marching to wars, for instance, are serving powerful leaders and the State "not as men mainly, but as machines.


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No man can align himself with this country's government "without disgrace," for Americans are living under leadership that allows slavery. Thoreau believes all men understand the right of citizens to revolt against tyranny, as they did in the American Revolution of Why did men rebel in against a government that "taxed certain foreign commodities" but now see no need to rebel when the United States, in the mids, organizes "oppression and robbery"? One sixth of the American population is enslaved, and Americans have unjustly invaded Mexico.

It is time for another rebellion. The quotation "That government is best which governs least" mirrors the statement Ralph Waldo Emerson makes in his essay "Politics": "The less government we have the better. Thoreau's vision of a limited government and respect for individual power is similar to the political movement known today as libertarianism. Libertarian thinkers include Jefferson, American writer Thomas Paine, Scottish philosopher David Hume, and others who believe the best government leaves individuals alone, giving each person dignity and respect, or "liberty under law.

When Thoreau says the American government is a "tradition," he is using the word tradition in the way transcendentalists often did, to mean "authority that should be questioned. Because Americans have traditionally followed their government into war does not mean they should continue to do so, especially if they disagree with the war.

Further explaining his stance on government, Thoreau distinguishes himself from the "no-government men," possibly referring to a type of protester called a "nonresistant. Nonresistants did not participate at all in government; they neither held office nor voted.


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Thoreau ascertains his agenda is different from that of the nonresistants. He is definitely not opposed to following government regulations or even paying taxes.

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

But he wants better regulations and taxes that go to worthwhile causes. He keeps his argument broad and understandable, his only obligation being "to do what I think right. The metaphors Thoreau uses to describe government emphasize his disregard for the present system. He personifies the standing army as "only an arm" of a larger body, unable to think for itself. Government is "a wooden gun" pointed at the people; it looks intimidating, but it is really fragile.


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Trade and commerce are "made of India rubber," a flexible material able to spring over governmental red tape. The extended metaphor Thoreau employs in the essay is the comparison of government to a machine.

What criticisms of representative democracy does Thoreau raise in “Civil Disobedience”?

In the second paragraph, he introduces the image of a machine by explaining how people need to think of a government as distant, vague "complicated machinery" to feel protected and safe. He believes citizens are more connected to the machinery than they realize. Soldiers and government employees become parts of the machine, no longer men but "forts and magazines" or, in their failure to act from moral judgment and their conscience, they are on the level of "wood and earth and stones.

The posse comitatus is a group hired to enforce the law, similar to a police force. Serving government leads to physical inhumanity.

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Cold and impersonal, a machine is in constant motion. If men are not guided by their moral judgment and conscience, then as individual parts of the machine, men have no control in what they do; they neither act nor think for themselves. However, a human being can change and act as an individual, moving against the machine's motion, and accept the costs of such action. Thoreau's negative views on war become clear in this section, as he describes war in general, and the Mexican War in particular, as shameful for a nation. If all soldiers know war is a "damnable business," what, he wonders, do veterans die for?

Why are they considered heroes for doing something they know is wrong? Like Moore, Thoreau suggests, soldiers may die with no ceremony, be buried in the Navy Yard, or simply be "laid out alive and standing," stripped of their humanity. Thoreau makes his argument more specific as he discusses "the right of revolution. Free men in the North don't see themselves as oppressed by tyranny. They might even think the Mexican War is more justifiable, and takes less of a toll, because "ours is the invading army. Americans in fought over the minor "friction" of a trade tax on goods, but in the 19th century they are ignoring human rights abuses and engaging in unnecessary wars.